There are numerous aspects of the violent drama at the gas plant at Tigantourine near In Amenas in south-eastern Algeria that remain unclear if not frankly baffling. Since the dust is yet to settle this is not the moment to pass judgment on the behaviour of the Algerians or the significance of the event. Instead I propose to list some of the questions to which answers are needed if we are to get a clear view of what happened.
Who were the attackers? We have been told they were variously called Katibat El Moulathamine (‘The Brigade of the Masked Ones’) or ‘Those who sign in blood’. This uncertainty has been explained away by the suggestion that the latter are an ‘affiliate’ of the former. But since Katibat al-Moulathamine was set up only very recently, as a split from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), it has gained an affiliate very quickly. Eyewitness reports from the scene speak of a varied group, judging by their accents, including Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans as well as Algerians and, according to one witness, a Frenchman wearing sunglasses. If this is true, what might it signify?
Who ordered the attack? The answer given by the Algerian interior minister, Dahou Ould Kablia, as early as Wednesday 16 January – and universally accepted – is Mokhtar Ben Mokhtar (or Belmokhtar). How is this information, which was produced so promptly, to be squared with the repeated reports of Ben Mokhtar’s death over the years? How do we know Ben Mokhtar is still alive, and, if he is, how do we explain his ability to survive on the run, evade capture and continue to operate for so long – since the 1990s – while numerous other jihadi leaders have been killed or captured over the years?
How was the attack organised? It transpires that Ben Mokhtar did not himself lead the attack but (supposedly) ordered it from his current (reported) base in Gao in northern Mali. This presupposes that, despite his recent split from AQIM, he has a very long arm indeed, or has managed to contract a far-flung network of accomplices.
Where did the attackers come from and how did they get to Tigantourine? The place is 40 kilometres from In Amenas and 100 kilometres from the Libyan border. If they were sent by Ben Mokhtar, did they start from Gao or somewhere else? In either case, did they enter Algeria directly from Mali or did they go via Libya? In the first case, the Algerian security authorities, with 35,000 troops along the southern borders, have questions to answer; in the second, the Libyan authorities do. The Mauritanian news agency ANI claims the group came from Niger, which would put the authorities in Niamey in the frame too. In this context, it is striking that Ould Kablia declared on Algerian television that the attackers ‘did not enter Algeria from Libya or Mali or any neighbouring country’ but were locals ‘from the region’. This thesis was subsequently corrected by the communications minister, Mohamed Said Belaid, who insisted on the commando’s multinational make-up. So how did they get there and why did Ould Kablia get it wrong? Was he misinformed? If so, by whom? Have opposed viewpoints been doing battle in Algeria’s corridors of power?
What was the object of the exercise? It was reported on Wednesday that the likely motive was retaliation against Algeria for allowing French planes bombing northern Mali to fly through Algeria’s airspace. But the Mauritanian news agency reported the same day that the attackers’ aim was not to punish Algeria but to demand the immediate cessation of French military operations in Mali. But then why attack an Algerian facility where the overwhelming majority of foreign personnel were not French? Could it be that the Algerian commentator who has claimed that the aim of the attack was to force the ‘internationalisation’ of the war in northern Mali, by precipitating wider Western involvement, was onto something? Moreover, the attackers were also reported as demanding the release of Omar Abd el-Rahman, the blind leader of the Egyptian jihadi group al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya, jailed in the United States for his role in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and of Aafia Siddiqi, a Pakistani woman sentenced to 86 years in prison in the US in what many observers (and by no means only Muslims) consider a grotesque travesty of justice. The combination of these demands is bizarre if not absurd: why garble the message in this way – unless the purpose was to provoke greater American interest? But why should the attackers have this purpose?
Why have European capitals taken different views of the link to the Mali crisis? François Hollande has accepted, indeed emphasised the link between the Tigantourine attack and France’s decision to go to war in Mali, arguing that the former vindicates the latter. (One might also argue that it does nothing of the sort.) The British government has suggested that the attack required considerable preparation and so could not be a response to the developments in Mali or Algeria’s granting of overflight rights to the French air force just a few days earlier. Why this divergence? A spokesman for the attackers explained that they had anticipated Algeria’s concession to France. Is this credible? And why did the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, announce Algeria’s granting of overflight rights on French television on Sunday 13 January, and even state that these rights were ‘unlimited’, when Algiers had kept quiet about the service it was performing? Did he consult Algiers beforehand?